In my first post I introduced the concept of engaging and how it relates to prejudice. In my second post I discussed how failure to engage leads to miscommunication with people we know well. Now, I will conclude this discussion by discussing engagement in regards to communicating with atypical communicators.
Recently I was reminded that I am such a person. During my graduation party I was sitting with a circle of friends. My husband, my mother, my brother and I were there along with another couple we’ve known for years and an old friend. These are all people I know well, who I am comfortable with, and who know me in my many idiosyncrasies and accept me as I am. This old friend and I started talking about a topic of mutual interest. I became highly engaged in the conversation. Without meaning to or even being aware that I did so, I focused on this gentleman at the exclusion of all others. It wasn’t until he pointed out that our conversation was excluding everyone else that I became aware of this. This wasn’t a “party” conversation and it was not appropriate to become so highly involved that I was not aware of where I was and who I was with. Intellectually I know this, but I lack the intuitive sense that most people have regarding such things. Whether he knew it on an intellectual level or an intuitive level, he knew he would have to break open the conversation to get me to re-focus. He did so without making a big deal out of it or making me feel foolish. The other people knew me well enough to realize I did not mean to exclude them and did not take offense that I had.
This example shows engagement on multiple levels. I was very much engaged in that conversation, but I was not engaged in social context I was in once the conversation had begun. Whereas my friend was engaged in both the conversation and the social context; he was also engaged with me as a person to the extent that he knew I couldn’t pull back on my own. And I need that.
Adapting to my means of communication requires effort from others; however the amount of effort it requires is relatively small. I talk like an intellectual. For the most part, I use proper grammar when I speak and I use the words that are appropriate, whether or not they are commonly known. I also have focus issues. All of these represent barriers in everyday conversation, but the barriers are fairly easily overcome. If you tell me you don’t understand, I will tone down my language. If you tell me I’m excluding others, I will pull back and try to engage in my surroundings. I am somewhat adaptable, and I surround myself with people who are able to accommodate me in my conversational short-comings.
There are, however, people whose means of communication are far more atypical than my own. My son Alex is one such individual. As a primarily non-verbal person, he is often left out of conversations and social interactions. He’s very difficult to communicate with because he has a very limited ability to adapt his skills to converse with others. It’s also difficult for him to engage with others. This means that most of the “heavy lifting” has to be done by the other person.
In contemporary society, Alex’s communication challenges seem to be seen as putting an “unnecessary burden” on others. Two ideas are inherent in this assumption: First, other people are not obligated to put forth the effort necessary to communicate with Alex. Second, Alex needs to be “fixed” in order to communicate effectively. Another assumption is made—awareness of which seems even more fleeting—and that is that because Alex doesn’t communicate in a typical way and cannot express himself effectively in his atypical way, he doesn’t have anything to say. The first two assumptions are negotiable—I don’t agree with them, but there certainly is room for intelligent debate on those issues. However, the third assumption, the one people seem least willing to admit they make, is wholly and completely wrong. Those people who make the effort to communicate with Alex on his own terms and within his own limitations will find Alex has quite a bit to say. It’s difficult to understand, of course, but there is definitely a lively, thoughtful child “hidden under” the communication and social challenges. Except that he’s not really hidden at all. People perceive that he is hidden, because they filter out his attempts at communication and force him into a template of “those who do not communicate.” He is there; they just don’t really see him.
So, now I’ve wandered back into the realm of stereotypes. My point is not to decry those individuals who dismiss my son (okay, so that is a lingering point in much of what I write, but I do have another point to make as well), instead my point is that as a parent I do have an obligation to put forth the effort necessary to communicate with Alex. So does my husband, his teachers, his doctors and his therapists. This is non-negotiable. While the rest of the world may be able to debate why they shouldn’t have to put forth this effort, while they may be able to hunker down and refuse to do so like petulant children; we can’t.
Now, I could go off on a long tirade about how some parents don’t accept this obligation, or how there are far too many teachers, doctors, therapists and caregivers who neglect their obligation to communicate with the people in their care. But I won’t. Perhaps I’ll do that at a later time—maybe when I have a better idea how to fix that problem.
Instead, I will return to how engaging is work. Communicating with someone who communicates a little differently, such as myself, requires a little more work than the average engaged conversation. Communicating with someone who communicates in a manner significantly different than your own, such as Alex, requires a lot more work than the average engaged conversation. Except the average engaged conversation is itself a rarity. More often we simply interact with templates instead of engage in conversations.
For a long time now I’ve known that communicating with Alex is something like speaking to someone in a foreign language you don’t really understand. It’s a learning process full of fits and starts. It requires a lot of effort and sometimes I’m simply not up to the challenge. But I force myself to try, because Alex needs me to make that effort. Recently, the gentleman who was so good at prompting me to be more inclusive in our conversation at my graduation party was living with us. He put a great deal of effort into learning to communicate with my children. He also commented that learning to communicate with my children taught him a lot about communicating with other people as well. This struck a chord with me, because I have discovered the same thing on my own. Recently, my husband Mark commented that he found it very difficult to interact with Alex. While he was referring to play, communication is a big part of that—and that communication is the biggest challenge for Mark. Mark has been able to connect with Willy and Brandon very well. He’s also able to connect with Ben, though sometimes it seems that this is because Ben is so fascinated with Mark that Ben overcomes his own challenges to make the connection happen. But a similar connection with Alex eludes him as the communication barrier still looms largely between them.
I guess my point is this: As much work as it is to communicate with someone who communicates in an atypical manner, the rewards for those who make that effort are often much bigger and much grander than communicating successfully with that one person, though I’d say that’s a pretty big, grand reward all by itself. Make the effort; it’s worth it!